My brain is fried. I have been doing meaningful but meticulous curriculum work all week, and I’m needing some time to refocus and re-energize. It seems like a fitting time to talk about paschimottanasana or intense west stretch or seated forward bend.
Generally speaking, forward bends are calming, and they tend to facilitate introspection. Fair warning: Introspection can sometimes be a tough thing to do as it requires just sitting with oneself and remaining present with whatever comes up. To be prepared for that and to balance it, I try to consider intent before entering into paschimottanasana. If my intent is primarily to stretch out my back muscles physically, I might work to get physically deeper into the posture, but I’ll generally stay for a shorter amount of time. If, on the other hand, my intent is primarily to be with my own mind, I’ll stay longer in the asana but enter into it less deeply.
From a physical perspective, if the primary purpose of the pose is to stretch the erector spinae — as is my intent here; YMMV — it makes sense to adjust the other parts of the body in order to accommodate spinal length. As the above video suggests, one way to do accomplish this is to bend the knees, possibly supporting them underneath via a rolled towel or mat. Another option is to elevate the hips as in dandasana, thereby possibly freeing up some range of motion in the low back, pelvis, and/or hamstrings.
Regardless of intent, when feeling my way into the pose, I try to move in slowly and with a straight spine. I do this because it helps me find the zone where I’m physically reaching and changing but also calm and safe. In terms of process, it works for me to think about expanding and lifting up on the inhale and relaxing and hinging from the hip on the exhale. Typically, if I’m hanging out in a yin pose, I’ll stop at about 75% of my yang maximum, let my spine round and relax, and just be. It is often difficult, independent of how far I have physically folded myself.
I sort of wonder if that is because, for a few minutes, my whole world is me. Depending on my spinal position that day, I’m staring at my thighs or my crotch or my abdomen — none of them emotionally neutral regions of my body. There is, by that point, a rounded spine — a position that is not revered but is often deemed necessary by the demands of having a job (and, you know, making rent and eating and all that shit). Entering it from a focus of spinal length and decompression, however, can sometimes yield vastly different results than does my current “sitting at the computer screen” spinal curvature.
For any purpose, I’d suggest watching this Yoga Anatomy video for a nifty anatomy tip in finding a different release — and therefore different sensation — in the pose. I’ve tried it several times, and I’ll offer a few personal observations:
- Some days, the physical shape change is more pronounced than others.
- Some days, the sensation of release — whether physical or emotional — is more pronounced than others.
- There is no direct correlation between the visible shape change and any altered sensation.
In other words, what is seen in the body + what is felt in the body + what is experienced in the mind are three interwoven threads that sometimes meet and sometimes don’t.
And ultimately, I think this is part of what makes paschimottanasana so uncomfortable for me: the realization that, even if grand shifts are taking place in my mind, my body might not change. If it’s safe and accessible for you, I’d encourage you to sit with that idea for a few minutes. It’s a challenge.